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Postcard from Sri Lanka – the English abroad, and close encounters of a Barmy kind

November 22, 2018

Which is more likely to become extinct first? Test match cricket or the Church of England?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with cricket, a test match is an international contest that lasts for up to five days, unless one side or the other wins the match earlier.

The Church of England, on the other hand, is a religious organisation that is embedded into our unwritten constitution. What the two have in common is that they are endangered species. Test matches because of lack of interest among some of the most influential cricketing nations; the C of E because of declining attendance at church services. A further similarity is that for many, test matches seem endless. So, despite the valiant efforts of priests to make their Sunday sermons short, sharp and relevant, do Anglican rituals, especially if you’re dragged along to partake in them against your will or through a sense of obligation.

I am a fan both of test cricket and the Church of England. I’m not particularly religious, but if the Anglican church shrivelled to nothing it would leave a big hole in our society. So would test cricket.

More often than not I watch my cricket on TV. But when my wife and I were planning a trip to Asia in November, I mentioned that it would be fun, for me at least, to be in Sri Lanka at the same time as the England team. Although she’s not a fan of the game, she nobly agreed.

Which is how I spent several days in Galle and Kandy watching our boys doing battle with Sri Lanka’s finest. I was not alone. In fact there were five thousand other Brits soaking up the sun, the cricket and the Lion beer. The core of the English support was a bunch of folk who follow the team throughout the world. They’re known as the Barmy Army.

The vocal elements of the Barmy Army tend to gather on grassy promontories. They huddle together in groups about the size of the British garrison at Rourke’s Drift. But whereas in the movie Zulu it’s the massed ranks of African warriors chanting and responding, here it’s the Barmy Army. The intensity is midway on a scale between the prayers at an Anglican Sunday morning service and the Zulus at full throttle. Very original they are too. “We are the Army…” chants a single caller. “The Barmy Army…” replies the congregation. Not exactly the wit of Liverpool’s Kopites, but hey, heat and beer do addle the brain somewhat.

The Army tends to find its voice during the afternoon, as pyramids of beer cans pile up beside them like spent cartridges. By the last session the voices are louder, sometimes joyful, at other times mournful, depending on the progress of the England team. By close of play, those still standing are surrounded by the inert bodies of those who have succumbed to the beer, the heat or both, as this clip suggests:


Incidentally, the suspicious-looking policeman at the end of the clip is there because the day before, an Aussie fan out-barmied the Barmies by doing a streak, with nobody to stop him.

In Sri Lanka the English multitudes unfurl banners on fences around the ground. Crosses of St George bearing allegiance to a town, a cricket club or a football club. The Army, when they’re not wearing their customised Barmy Army teeshirts, bear the insignia of their county clubs. Many are wearing football kit. In this respect the analogy of Michael Caine and Stanley Baker at Rorke’s Drift breaks down. They’re more like the English at Agincourt, each with their own coat of arms, ready to repel the French.

The Barmy Army, or at least many of them, don’t believe in sun cream. By Day 3 at Galle, there are plenty of lobsters, heads glistening in the sun.

Not all England supporters identify as Barmy. Every so often, you see old gentlemen immaculately dressed in flannels, shirts and jackets. Their ties and hats bear the distinctive colours of the Marylebone Cricket Club, the owners of Lord’s Cricket Ground and until a few decades ago the ruling body of English cricket. Unlike the Anglican church, its religious counterpart, the MCC has since been disestablished, but such is the prestige of membership that the English elite put their infant sons on the waiting list for membership, as they would for a place at Eton. The usual wait for election is about thirty years. I say sons for a reason. It’s only been recently that women have become eligible for membership.

Whether or not you choose to join the diehards on the hill, when you watch England abroad you make friends easily. The camaraderie is lovely, and very English. Everybody has an opinion on the day’s play and is willing to share it. Conversations are picked up by those in neighbouring seats, and discussions go back and forth for hours about the quality of their hotels, the food and the journey to the ground. Everything, it seems, is evidence of the superiority of our beloved England, apart from the cricket – no England fan will ever take their team’s excellence for granted. The play has been superb though, and very different from the fare you’d expect at home.

At the risk of getting too technical, cricket in England, Australia and the Caribbean tends to start with a bombardment by large, intimidating bowlers hurling down bullets at between 80 and 90 mph. It’s a bit of a blood sport, in other words. Here in Sri Lanka, and other parts of the subcontinent, the pitches are designed to help the ball to spin. The bowlers are slower. The role of opening batsmen – the guys who go in to bat first – is therefore different. They’re not required to risk having their heads knocked off. But they are required to deal with deliveries that bounce in one direction and change course alarmingly.

Spectators who enjoy the sight of blood and guts may be deprived of the sight of a batsman keeling over after being hit with a ball that endangers his fertility, but they do get to see more balls bowled in a day, largely because spin bowlers don’t take a run-up that starts at the boundary ropes.

What of the home supporters? Well sadly, there weren’t many. Ticket prices for seating at the test matches are beyond the pocket of the average Sri Lanka fan. Even the ground admission, to the grassy slopes around the stadia, which costs just over £1, didn’t attract too many local takers.

So you had the unusual spectacle of a cricket match attended by thousands of supporters of the visiting team, and a few hundred on the home side. I asked a tuk-tuk driver why this should be. He said that Sri Lankan fans were not really interested in five-day matches. They prefer to save their money for the one-day games and the even shorter 20/20 matches. These are wham-bam-thank-you-mam affairs, full of thrills and spills and, compared with the five-day format, about as subtle as a flying mallet.

The same is true of cricket in India, where the Indian Premier League, the world’s most popular short-form competition, is massively lucrative. Each match is attended by crowds that would make Manchester United envious. The multi-day game, the original form of international cricket, is played in front of relatively sparse crowds. Even the presence of the Barmy Army, on occasions when England are the visiting team, doesn’t fill the gap.

Why so? The easy explanation is that we live in an age of short attention spans. There are two ways of looking at long-form cricket. Admirers, such as me, love its subtlety, the individual battles and the way that the course of a match can be determined in a few hours, yet changed in a few minutes of collective and individual inspiration. Test cricket is a game of strategy as well as tactics, more like a short war than a swift battle.

Detractors might argue that many test matches are the equivalent of endless bouts of sexual foreplay with no guarantee of an earth-moving conclusion. This chimes with American incredulity that our national sport involves two teams playing for five days, with the distinct possibility that there will be no winner at the end of the game.

Perhaps the American attitude to sport, or rather that of the TV companies, has been instrumental in skewing the game towards short formats. Six hours of cricket a day over an extended period is not what broadcasters consider optimal entertainment, especially as there are often periods of play when, superficially at least, there’s very little happening.

But the Sri Lankan cricketing authorities have done themselves no favours by scheduling matches to start on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. This has meant that on weekends, when you would expect to see more local supporters, the match has finished or is moving into the closing stages. In England most matches start on Thursdays, which means those who buy tickets for Saturday or Sunday have a good chance of catching some of the best action.

So, in the absence of home fans, the Barmy Army holds the high ground. To look at them, with their England banners, beer bellies and bull necks, you would think that they’re football ultras taking a winter break from their usual haunts at Chelsea, Millwall or Blackburn. But they’re not rabble-rousing thugs, even when they visit countries like Australia, where the home fans would give them a run for their money if they turned uppity. As their name suggests, they’re full of good humour and bonhomie. But I do get the feeling that there’s a strong Little England attitude among many of them. If you polled every “Englerland” follower in Sri Lanka on Brexit, I suspect that the vast majority would be Leavers.

The English presence in Sri Lanka is obviously welcome because of the money they bring into the country, though there also seems to be a dark side. A South African journalist whom I met in Kandy, and who was clearly more observant then me, remembers seeing one or two England fans during the last tour of South Africa sitting in the stands with young local girls half their age. This time, he said, he heard men boasting openly of their visits to massage parlours that resulted in “happy endings”. That’s not to say that the majority are in the country for sex tourism, but if he’s right, clearly it’s one of the attractions for some. Though why you would boast about an activity that shows you up as a sad old lecher is beyond me.

Much to the delight of the Barmies, England came out on top in both matches. The venues were spectacular, especially the stadium at Galle, which is overlooked by the Fort, where, if you couldn’t get a ticket, you could gather on the ramparts and watch the game for free. I spent one day there, bitten to death by ants and uncomfortable as hell. But it was still a fun occasion, enhanced as always by a detachment from the Barmy Army, whose unprotected faces progressed to a deep crimson as the day went on. I could never be one of them, but I’d defend to the death (well, almost) their right to be Barmy.

Wherever you go in Galle, it’s hard not to be reminded of the 2004 tsunami. The stadium itself was wrecked by the deluge. Thousands of people in the Galle area died. In a little seafood restaurant on the coast, we noticed a picture on the wall of an oldish man. He was the father of the current owner. He was swept away as he slept. Up in Kandy we spoke to one of the waitresses in our hotel, who told us that she lost her husband and father. After the disaster she built a new life for herself and her daughter up in the hills above the city, far from the potential reach of some new tsunami.

Hearing these stories was a reminder that some things are more important than cricket. Sri Lanka, recovering from decades of civil war in the north of the country, is going through a political crisis. One prime minister has been dismissed, and is refusing to stand down despite the appointment of a rival. Which left me reflecting that I’d travelled from a country that has no prime minister worthy of the title into another that has two.

Will test cricket die out? Probably not any time soon, because of support for the format among the elderly, whose reserves of patience and available time exceeds those of the young. But when they die off, who knows? Sell your shares in breweries would be my advice.

As for the Church of England, I suppose its future is in the hands of God, whom the current Archbishop of Canterbury has just determined to be neither male or female, and who henceforth I shall refer to as The Entity. I hope that said Entity sends the breath of inspiration our way, and ensures that our cathedrals don’t turn into museums, and our congregations don’t dwindle to nothing.

We shall certainly need a little inspiration in the coming months and years. We’ll also need test cricket to remind us that there’s no such thing as a lost cause.

From → Postcards, Social, Sport, Travel, UK

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